News organizations: If your sources lie to you, out them
A suggestion for the New York Times: Stop using anonymous sources except in the most rare of circumstances. If you can’t bring yourself to doing that, the next time you get burned by these people, burn them back.
The promiscuous use — make that abuse — of unnamed sources by our top news organizations is an ongoing, sick joke in journalism circles, and I believe one of the key reasons that journalism audiences have less and less trust of the craft. The Times is the most notable offender, because it’s the supposed Newspaper of Record.
Despite a history of promising to reform its ways, and despite the staggering damage that lying anonymous sources to do its reputation, the Times is shameless and incorrigible in giving them a platform to deceive us. So why should we be surprised when they apparently did it again, in a story that ran last Sunday. I say “apparently” because, as usual, we have to trust the Times is telling the truth about the latest internal scandal where anonymous sources played a key role.
Let’s assume the top editors told the truth about this situation to Margaret Sullivan, the organization’s public editor. Her scathing critique of the latest Times scandal, which she headlined, “Systemic Change Needed After Faulty Times Article,” catalogued series of errors and failings.
The errors went far beyond allowing anonymous sources to poison the public well in the ongoing investigation of the recent killings in San Bernardino. Sullivan’s examination showed astonishingly lax newsroom practices. She quoted the paper’s top editors as saying they intend to create new procedures to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes again.
That would be great, but don’t hold your breath — especially when it comes to the granting of anonymity to people who repeatedly demonstrate they don’t deserve it.
Over the years, Times public editors have complained bitterly about the practice. Newsroom bosses have nodded wisely and said they take the problem very seriously and will change their ways. They never do. As former newspaper editor Howard Weaver posted on Twitter, “Like a hungover drunk who swears ‘Never again,’ the Times promises vigilance on anonymous sources whenever it gets burned, but drinks again.”
If the Times is serious about this, at long last, it could try to demonstrate its commitment to re-earning readers’ trust.
It could just stop — say “No,” and mean it, to everyone who demands anonymity. Say so publicly, and tell readers it won’t cite other news organizations’ stories that are based on anonymous sources unless and until there’s documentary evidence or confirmation from people who stand behind their words.
Try that for six months. See what happens. Yes, the Times would miss some stories, or get them later than others. It would also cause some readers, like me, to have more trust in what I was reading.
This doesn’t solve the problem of being lied to by on-the-record sources, of course. But at least then you have some accountability.
I’d make an exception to this rule, for the very, very, very rare cases — such as revealing the government’s illegal surveillance on the American people, or telling the world about human-rights abuses — where the use of anonymity is unavoidable. If someone’s life or freedom is at stake, and the story is important enough, readers will understand. They’ll still have a good reason to be skeptical of the story, however, as they always should when they encounter anonymous sourcing.
Another approach would be to disallow the use of unnamed sources in the publication without specific approval from three top editors — including the executive editor — who are biased toward saying “No,” and any one of whom could veto their use. Given the history at the Times, this probably wouldn’t change much of what emerges in print, but it would create a speed bump or two.
Finally, I’d urge the Times, and all who use unnamed sources, to do something else that would go a long way toward creating accountability under the current crappy system. Put a condition on granting anonymity: If the source for anything that the newspaper ultimately published turned out to have been lying, or even misinformed, he or she would be outed. Period.
Yes, this means that a source who’s been lied to would also be outed. Too bad. Maybe sources would be more careful in what they pass along in that case.
I’m not suggesting that any journalists violate any promises they’ve made in the past. A deal is a deal, even if we’ve been suckered. I am hoping some journalists will change the traditional terms in the future — for their own protection as well as the public’s.
What would happen if a policy like this were widely adopted? Journalists wedded to the current system will insist that we’ll have much poorer understanding of what’s going on. We can’t know for sure.
But I do know this. A policy like the one I’m proposing would a) dramatically reduce the amount of anonymous sourcing; and b) greatly improve the believability of the ones do show up in publications or broadcasts.
The Times is still America’s finest and most important journalism organization. I still pay for it, because I don’t want to see it disappear.
But until the Times and other news organizations clean up their acts, it’s up to you and me — that is, the audience — to solve this for ourselves. So I recommend you take my approach. I automatically disbelieve what anonymous sources say. Lately, it saves time.
(Cross-posted from my personal blog.)